Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution

Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution

by Matilde Zimmermann

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“A must-read for anyone interested in Nicaragua—or in the overall issue of social change.”—Margaret Randall, author of SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS and SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS REVISITED 

Sandinista is the first English-language biography of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the legendary leader of the Sandinista National Liberation


“A must-read for anyone interested in Nicaragua—or in the overall issue of social change.”—Margaret Randall, author of SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS and SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS REVISITED 

Sandinista is the first English-language biography of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the legendary leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua (the FSLN) and the most important and influential figure of the post–1959 revolutionary generation in Latin America. Fonseca, killed in battle in 1976, was the undisputed intellectual and strategic leader of the FSLN. In a groundbreaking and fast-paced narrative that draws on a rich archive of previously unpublished Fonseca writings, Matilde Zimmermann sheds new light on central themes in his ideology as well as on internal disputes, ideological shifts, and personalities of the FSLN.
The first researcher ever to be allowed access to Fonseca’s unpublished writings (collected by the Institute for the Study of Sandinism in the early 1980s and now in the hands of the Nicaraguan Army), Zimmermann also obtained personal interviews with Fonseca’s friends, family members, fellow combatants, and political enemies. Unlike previous scholars, Zimmermann sees the Cuban revolution as the crucial turning point in Fonseca’s political evolution. Furthermore, while others have argued that he rejected Marxism in favor of a more pragmatic nationalism, Zimmermann shows how Fonseca’s political writings remained committed to both socialist revolution and national liberation from U.S. imperialism and followed the ideas of both Che Guevara and the earlier Nicaraguan leader Augusto César Sandino. She further argues that his philosophy embracing the experiences of the nation’s workers and peasants was central to the FSLN’s initial platform and charismatic appeal.

Editorial Reviews

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“Good English language historical studies of modern Nicaragua can be counted on one hand. Joining this elite group, Zimmermann’s well-researched, -organized, and -written book focuses on the most important (yet oft-misunderstood) figure in the FSLN insurgency of the 1960s and 1970s, Carlos Fonseca. As such, it is welcome, indeed.”—Thomas W. Walker, Ohio University

“In this century we have had to look hard not only at the great struggles for justice but at the lives of the men who led those struggles. In this well-researched biography of Carlos Fonseca, founder and indisputable leader of the FSLN until his death in battle two years before Somoza’s defeat, Matilde Zimmermann gives us a compelling portrait of someone obsessed with detail, puritanical but caring, brilliant and determined. Zimmermann asks the difficult questions and her answers are sometimes surprising. A must read for anyone interested in Nicaragua—or in the overall issue of social change.”—Margaret Randall, author of SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS and SANDINO'S DAUGHTERS REVISITED 

“Zimmermann does an excellent job explaining the real content of the FSLN’s internal differences, going a long way beyond the very schematic and surface readings that have appeared thus far. It is a pioneering effort and our understanding of the Sandinista revolution is substantially enriched by this study.”—Barry Carr, LaTrobe University

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Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-2595-6

Chapter One

Matagalpa: The Early Years, 1936-1950

In early July 1936, a Matagalpa seamstress stopped by City Hall to register the birth of a baby boy to her neighbor Augustina Fonseca, an unmarried twenty-six-year-old washerwoman from the countryside. The clerk took down the information that the infant, born 23 June, was named Carlos Alberto Fonseca and was illegitimate.

As the child grew up, he came to see his world as dominated by sharp and sometimes violent contrasts: between his country of Nicaragua and United States imperialism, between the white coffee growers and merchants of the Matagalpa region and the overwhelmingly Indian coffee pickers and campesinos, between the tiny revolutionary group he founded and the powerful and well-armed Somoza government.

But the first contrast Carlos Fonseca Amador became aware of must have been within his own family. He lived with his mother, older brother Raúl, and eventually three younger siblings in a single windowless room about twelve feet on a side, off the kitchen patio of an aunt's house. Half a mile away was the mansion where his father, Fausto Amador Alemán, lived with his wife and children.One of the few two-story buildings in Matagalpa, the Amador residence, along with the cathedral facade half a block away, dominated the north end of town. Inside were shining mahogany floors and cabinets, mosaic tiles, a garden of flowers and trees, and elegant imported furnishings, all kept immaculate by live-in servants.

Carlos's mother, Augustina Fonseca Ubeda, had arrived in Matagalpa in about 1930 from the rainy mountain village of San Rafael del Norte. According to a local resident and distant relative of Carlos, San Rafael del Norte was "an area of simple folk, the majority of them fair-skinned, where those who had land used it to keep cattle and grow sugar cane," and the Ubeda family were "cattle keepers, who grew some cane and some garden crops, hardworking people who lived austerely; they were extremely religious and sometimes only appeared in town for Holy Week celebration."

Like many country people from the North, Augustina Fonseca, who was twenty years old in 1930, came to the city looking for work and fleeing the disruption of war. San Rafael del Norte was the home of Blanca Aráuz, the wife of guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino, and the Segovian Mountains around the town became a war zone in the late 1920s.

Augustina, or Tina as she was known, arrived in Matagalpa with her two aunts, only slightly older than herself, Isaura and Victoria Ubeda. Tina found work as a maid at the Hotel Bermúdez, where in 1933 she gave birth to twin boys, Raúl and Carlos. (This first Carlos died as an infant.) The twins' father was reportedly U.S. Marine Lieutenant Pennington, an officer of the anti-Sandino forces stationed in northern Nicaragua. When Isaura Ubeda acquired a comfortable corner house near Plaza Laborio at the south end of town, she allowed Tina and baby Raúl to move into a back room. This is the house in which Carlos Fonseca Amador was born.

Tina's neighbor Benita Alvarado has described her friend's life as being "constant hard work, nothing but washing and ironing." But Alvarado also described herself and Tina as fiestejeras, "party girls," in their youth. "We all liked to dress up fancy to go out to the dance halls on the road to Jinotega," said Alvarado, "but with Tina, the more simply she dressed, the more beautiful she was and the more she attracted men." Augustina's daughter-in-law said she had the "double misfortune of being both poor and beautiful." Among Tina's suitors in 1935 was Carlos's father, Fausto Amador, a wealthy twenty-two year old who had just returned from school in the United States and had a reputation as a playboy and daredevil.

Still unmarried, Augustina Fonseca had three more children over the next fifteen years. Each time she became pregnant-when Carlos was four and then again when he was about ten and again when he was in his midteens-Tina and her children were thrown out of Isaura's house. Penniless and with no help from the children's fathers, the family each time searched for a shack to stay in until the new baby was born. Carlos later described one of these temporary dwellings to a friend: around the corner from Isaura's house, the hovel rented for forty córdobas (about five dollars) a month, and "the door wasn't even attached-at night we had to push the beds up against it to keep it from opening." Isaura always relented afterward, when Tina promised to change her ways, and each time she allowed the growing family to return.

In Nicaragua at the time, working-class and peasant couples commonly lived together for many years and had children without going through the formality of marriage. Isaura Ubeda herself had this type of relationship with the saddle maker Agustín Castillo. Augustina Fonseca's pregnancies, however, all seem to have resulted from short-lived sexual encounters rather than the more stable relationships in which society recognized a family tie. Her five children all had different fathers. Friends and family members I have interviewed do not believe that any of Augustina Fonseca's pregnancies resulted from rape. At the same time, they describe her as having few options in life after she bore her first illegitimate child-especially one whose father was reputed to be a Yankee. Regarded as "damaged goods," she had little chance of marrying or entering into a stable common-law relationship.

Fonseca's strict attitude toward matrimony and monogamy may be traced in part to these early childhood experiences. At age eighteen Carlos told his close friend Ramón Gutiérrez that he had never had sexual intercourse. When Ramón asked in some astonishment why, Carlos said that he would never do to any woman what had been done to his mother. A poem Fonseca wrote for the magazine Segovia in 1954 contains the lines "It's good that ... Tomasa is going to have a child. / But it's bad that ... Tomasa's child is not going to have a father." On trial in 1964, Fonseca was questioned about a National Guard report that he had needed treatment for venereal disease after his arrest. "Look, compañeros," he insisted, "I am an ascetic, almost a mystic. Every minute of my time is dedicated to the revolution and to the fatherland. What you were told is false. It is pure invention."

When Carlos Fonseca registered at the national university in 1956, he wrote "servant" in the space for parent's occupation. The clerk looked up and said, "Don't you mean housewife?"

"No, I don't mean housewife," replied Fonseca testily. "I am the son of a servant."

Writing to his father in 1960, Fonseca described his mother's life as "nothing but sadness, a constant tragedy." Carlos asked for help, not for himself but for his mother:

The poor woman, at this stage of her life, has never known what it means to live in a room of her own. She has always been a slave in the kitchens of those she has worked for, and the kitchen has been the only home I have known.... For my mother it is a bitter experience to live with my aunt. Besides, in Matagalpa she could live in a little rented place with running water and electricity for the sum of only 100 córdobas a month. She would have my younger maternal brother and sister with her of course. I assured her that you would help us, not really because you had any obligation to do it but because you would recognize that it would give me immeasurable satisfaction to have this dream of mine realized. When she comes to your office, I hope that you will remember that she has known nothing but sadness in this life, and that therefore she suffers deeply every time someone looks at her in a disparaging way.

Amador did not respond favorably to this plea. Augustina Fonseca lived in Isaura Ubeda's kitchen until she died from a stroke in 1967. She died penniless, and her sons had to borrow money for a simple box in which to bury her.

Carlos's father, Fausto Amador, belonged to one of the wealthiest and politically most powerful families of the region. Although no father was listed on Carlos Alberto's birth certificate or baptismal record, his Amador grandparents did appear on his baptismal certificate in 1937, and sometime during Carlos's elementary school years his father began to acknowledge his parentage.

The Amador family of Matagalpa had been prominent coffee growers, merchants, and politicians since the nineteenth century. Fausto Amador's father and Carlos's grandfather was Horacio Amador, an important coee trader who also owned coffee plantations and several houses in Matagalpa. One of Fausto's uncles, Sebastián Amador, had been the jefe político (political boss) of the Matagalpa region from 1915 to 1917 during the administration of Conservative president Adolfo Diaz. The Amadors, like most of the aristocratic families of Matagalpa, traditionally supported the Conservative Party, but Fausto switched his allegiance to the Nationalist Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacionalista, PLN) of President Anastasio Somoza García. In 1950 Fausto Amador moved with his family to Managua to administer several large Somoza enterprises. By the 1970s he owned a large amount of agricultural land in the Matagalpa and Managua regions and four luxurious homes in Managua, in addition to the Matagalpa family mansion.

Shortly after the birth of Carlos Fonseca, Fausto Amador married Lola Arrieta, the daughter and granddaughter of prominent Matagalpa professionals and cafetaleros (coffee planters). Between 1939 and 1950, Fausto Amador and Lolita Arrieta had one daughter and three sons: Gloria, Iván, Fausto Jr., or Faustito, and Cairo. Coincidentally, Carlos Fonseca also had three brothers and a sister on his mother's side: Raúl, René, Juan Alberto, and Estela. He developed the closest relationship with Faustito Amador and Juan Alberto Fonseca, both about a decade his junior.

Carlos had a voracious appetite and would later recall the poverty, humiliation, and constant hunger of his early years, when he sold the weekly newspaper Rumores in the street and peddled candies to bring home a few centavos or some bread for his little brothers. One of his mother's employers, Salvador Pinera, caught her slipping leftover food to her son, and according to Carlos, "He kicked me out like a dog." A line in a 1955 poem by Fonseca reads: "The rich feed you with leftovers." In 1956, when Carlos was working as a school librarian, he was sometimes able to sneak a hungry day student into the school cafeteria as his "guest."

Carlos had fonder memories of another of his mother's employers, Nacho Lay, the owner of the Shanghai Restaurant. The Chinese restaurant owner noticed that Carlos had to go right up to a huge wall clock to tell the time and sent him to get his first eyeglasses at the age of about ten or twelve. Fonseca wore heavy glasses for the rest of his life, and some of his letters express concern about his deteriorating vision. A high school friend remembered once asking Carlos why he looked so sad. "Well, Poet," answered Carlos, "I just got back from Managua, where I saw the eye doctor. He told me I have to stop studying or I'll be blind."

"So, Poet, what are you going to do?" asked the friend.

"Nothing, I guess I'll just go blind, because studying is my life." A gloating-and false-National Guard surveillance report assured Somoza in 1968 that "the communist Fonseca Amador is now almost completely blind."

By the late 1940s, Carlos's poverty was relieved by some financial help from his father. Fausto Amador's wife Lolita convinced him to take responsibility for Carlos, who bore a striking physical resemblance to his father and paternal brothers and was acquiring a reputation as a brilliant student. Carlos visited the Amador mansion and got to know his paternal siblings and his father's wife. During this period, Fausto Amador managed the U.S.-owned La Reyna gold mine in the town of San Ramón, about thirty kilometers away (where he had a mistress and another young son), spending only weekends at the family house in Matagalpa. When Carlos began high school in 1950, according to Lolita's sister Nellie Arrieta, Fausto paid for his tuition of about ten córdobas a month, his meals at a food stall near the school, and the clothes he bought from a local shopkeeper. In 1960 Fonseca wrote to Lolita Arrieta expressing gratitude for her affection and assuring her that "the goodness you have shown both to me and to all those who have had the opportunity to be close to you, is being rewarded by the fine children you have been given." He went on to praise Iván's good-heartedness and Fausto Orlando's brilliance and to express concern that Gloria's values would be corrupted by attending school in the United States.

Writers associated with the FSLN often deny that Carlos Fonseca had any relationship with his Somocista father. But Fonseca's own letters and other documents reveal a different and more complicated reality. His personal letters indicate that at least until the late 1960s, Fonseca craved his father's understanding and felt intense, if tortured, affection for him. "I want to speak frankly to you," Fonseca said in a 1960 letter, "because I cannot speak to the people I love in any other way." He went on: "This isn't the first time I have told you that it is more important to me that my father understand me spiritually than that he help me financially.... I would be extremely happy if you could make a little trip to this country [Costa Rica], even if it were for just one day, so that I could see you and talk to you at length. Or do I have to get shot to see you?"

In the same letter, Carlos attempted to find justification for his father's links to the Somoza dictatorship:

It sometimes makes me unhappy to think about the position you have, but I also feel justly proud of the fact that no one has ever proved to me that my father has committed a wrongful act. I say justly proud, because it is rare for anyone to get to my father's position without being buried in horrible misdeeds. And for this reason I believe that if my father had lived in a better time and place he would have put his talent at the service of society, of humanity, of progress. The voice of reason tells me that it wasn't intrigue and ambition that got my father to the high position he has today but rather simply his own abilities.

As late as 1967, by which time he had long since committed himself to revolutionary politics, Fonseca wrote a passionately personal letter to his father. He explained why he had not written for seven long years: "I found out that you had said you expected a letter from me any day because I would surely write as soon as I needed money. And a proof of how I am sometimes too sensitive is the fact that this comment of yours hurt me and prevented me from either writing you or asking for your help, even though I have needed this help more than once." Carlos did in fact ask his father in this letter for a C$ 10,000 loan, which he promised to repay in six months with interest at the rate of "a million thank-yous percent." Fonseca told his father he appreciated "the respect you have shown for the path I have chosen in life," which appears to be filial wishful thinking, and ended his letter with a hope that the period of estrangement was over:

I want to talk to you about all the things swirling around in my head. I have wanted to see you, to talk to you at length, wanted to hear you and have you hear me. Again I want to tell you that I know you understand me, but if you could hear me talk you would understand me even better. I am not suggesting a face-to-face meeting, which I know is impossible right now for a variety of reasons.... For many years you were the person I dreamed about most often when I was sleeping. And these dreams were always unpleasant. But for some time this hasn't been the case. Now the dreams I have about you are pleasant. I have finally managed to understand you and to acknowledge and appreciate your fraternal [sic] affection.

Carlos Fonseca identified with his mother's social class. His feelings for Augustina Fonseca seem to have been a mixture of love, loyalty, and pity-and not a little guilt. He jeopardized his own safety to visit her during his years underground, and he asked his young comrades in the FSLN, at considerable risk, to bring his mother to Costa Rica and Honduras for visits. But he saw his father as a more kindred intellectual spirit. Fonseca's letters to his father are full of historical and literary analysis, as he tried to convey his evolving political ideas and motivations. Educated in the United States, Fausto Amador was bilingual in English and Spanish, and he had a reputation as a brilliant administrator. Augustina Fonseca, on the other hand, was known as much for her silence as for her beauty. Even when she was young, according to her neighbor, "she was known as someone who almost didn't talk." Some of Carlos's contemporaries who had met his mother assumed that she was illiterate, although in fact she could read and write.


Excerpted from SANDINISTA by MATILDE ZIMMERMANN Copyright © 2000 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Matilde Zimmermann was a Nicaragua-based journalist in the years immediately following the 1979 revolution and worked with the Sandinista regional government in the northern Atlantic Coast in the late 1980s. She is currently Professor of History at Sarah Lawrence College.

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